Yesterday's testimony by former FBI Director James Comey was a typical partisan Rorschach test, with Republicans immediately claiming vindication and Democrats pouncing on his description of what sounds distinctly like the obstruction of justice. The spectacle of Comey calling Trump a liar of questionable character on national television was deeply damaging to the president. Yet Comey also confirmed that when he was fired, Trump himself was not under investigation by the FBI, and surely cheered the Fake News mafia by calling a memorable New York Times story from February basically false. As Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende tweeted immediately after the hearing, "Reading right and left Twitter is like journeying between parallel universes."
Lordy, let there be a parallel universe to which we can all escape from this endless nightmare.
Yet when the Comey dust clears, the biggest problem for both the president and the Republican Party will still be not the Russia investigation, but rather Donald Trump himself. As Comey might adorably say, there's "no fuzz" on that conclusion. If they are to have any hope of holding the House and Senate against an energized Democratic Party next year, Republicans are going to have to find a convincing answer to one very simple question: Why is the president of the United States so dreadfully unpopular just 140 days into his first term?
For all kinds of reasons, Trump should be rolling. The economy is humming along — perhaps the only fine-tuned machine in sight these days — with unemployment continuing to dip, the stock market reaching record highs (in the middle of the hearing, no less!), and people beyond the 1 percent starting to see economic gains for the first time in years. The Republican Party controls both branches of Congress as well as the presidency and the Supreme Court and could, theoretically, legislate more or less at will. The public is generally forgiving of new presidents, who enjoy a honeymoon period that they have to try really hard to screw up. But this president has been unable to escape the tar patch of an approval rating in the low 40s, and has spent as much time in the upper 30s as he has out of it.
There is only one explanation for why a president with all the prerequisites of massive popularity has instead managed to make lemons out of lemonade: People just don't like this guy. Beyond Trump's base, people are not buying the preposterous narrative that the media is conducting a hostile campaign to destroy the president. President Trump is completely daft and can't go more than a few days without carelessly tossing a lit rhetorical match into a clump of political underbrush. The American people don't seem to enjoy it when their leader is a spiteful mess of a human being who looks like he can barely dress himself, demonstrates almost hourly his incapacity for empathy or civility, and remains utterly clueless about his responsibilities and objective realities. You can succeed as a brilliant cad (Bill Clinton), or as a genial lunkhead (Ronald Reagan). It turns out that being both fathomlessly ignorant and aggressively jerkish is not a sweet spot in American politics.
The problem goes beyond Trump. The president has surrounded himself with a circle of close associates who are just as dumb and churlish as he is. Nothing illustrates the baseline incompetence of this crowd better than the insane statement released by Trump's lawyer Marc Kasowitz immediately after Comey's testimony. It contained a glaring typo in the first sentence (these Mensa rejects really have trouble spelling the word "president"), claimed that Comey must have released his memos to The New York Times before Trump tweeted about the possible existence of Oval Office tapes (it took America's sleuths about 30 seconds to determine that Kasowitz had the timeline all wrong) and, most bizarrely, that Comey had violated executive privilege by releasing his memos (no, he did not). The Trumpworld PR ship is full of loose screws. They seem more interested in running a media-hating war room designed to fight negative coverage than in preventing that negative coverage from appearing in the first place by not doing stupid things.
GOP leaders are still clearly hoping that the Russia story will ultimately burn itself out in a blaze of mutual accusations and ambiguous conclusions, giving them a free hand to inflict their casino capitalist nightmare on the American people. This is unlikely for three primary reasons.
First, a majority of Americans thinks something shady happened between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The investigation is likely to linger and Americans will eventually get tired of the ugliness even if they don't quite know where to point their fingers. Second, even if Trump and his associates are proven completely innocent, the president — the most corrupt person ever to inhabit the White House — will almost certainly plunge himself and his toadies headlong into new scandals and outrages, since the man's moral compass is irretrievably cracked and he seems incapable of telling right from wrong even in the most obvious circumstances. Finally, the policies that Trump and the Republicans want to pursue are radioactive, from the two-to-one opposition to pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement to the broadly detested health-care bill GOP leaders are about to jam through Congress.
Come to think of it, Trump should probably root for Russia to remain in the headlines as long as possible. When it's gone, he and the GOP will have nothing left to hide behind.